Few celebrations can garner the “oohs and aahs” of a good fireworks display. Summer is a time of year when the resonating booms and bright spills of color that dot the night sky are quite common.
Fireworks, which can be traced back thousands of years, have an interesting history. Many historians believe fireworks originated in ancient China as early as 200 B.C. It is thought that early fireworks were not the gunpowder-filled explosives of today, but something made from bamboo, a material native to China. Chunks of bamboo, a thick, fast-growing grass, may have been tossed onto a fire as fuel. The rods would blacken, but eventually explode in the fire, causing a loud, frightening noise. This noise was a result of trapped air and sap inside of the bamboo rods heating and expanding until the bamboo exploded under the pressure. The exploding bamboo was used to ward off animals, other people and evil spirits.
Chinese alchemists eventually stumbled on a recipe for basic gunpowder, mixing together saltpeter (potassium nitrate, then a common kitchen seasoning), charcoal, sulfur, and other ingredients. This powder was packed inside of hollow bamboo rods to produce an even bigger bang. Soon paper tubes replaced the bamboo, and fireworks were used for more than just scaring away spirits, as they were routinely included in special celebrations and even deployed during military engagements.
Fireworks may have begun in China, but they were soon being used around the world. Italians had been fascinated with fireworks ever since the explorer Marco Polo brought back firecrackers from Asia in 1292. During the Renaissance in Europe, the Italians began to develop fireworks into a true art form. Since this was a period of artistic creativity and expression, many new fireworks were created.
“Firemasters” were fireworks experts in medieval England. They worked with “green men,” who wore caps of leaves to protect themselves from raining sparks from the fireworks.
In 1758, the Jesuit missionary Pierre Nicolas le Cheron d’Incarville, living in Beijing, wrote to the Paris Academy of Sciences about the methods and composition of fireworks, including how to make many types of Chinese fireworks.
The world remains fascinated by fireworks even now. Fireworks displays have grown more elaborate over the years, requiring the skills of pyrotechnic experts, carpenters and digital sound masters. Various powders and chemicals mixed together produce a rainbow display of colors and aerial tricks that would likely have shocked the earliest firework creators.
Not forgetting its origins, China continues to produce and export more fireworks than any other country in the world. Safety experts recommend the public leave fireworks to the professionals and sit back and relax during awe-inspiring pyrotechnic displays. As the United States and Canada prepare for their respective Independence Day celebrations, flashy fireworks displays are bound to be part of the festivities.